By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
At the end of his first week as defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta boarded an E-4B airborne command post aircraft for the trip here.
While refueling, the plane hit some air pockets. The secretary said his first week at Defense was a lot like the plane ride.
"It's big, it's complicated, it's filled with sophisticated technology, it's bumpy, but in the end it's the best in the world," he said.
Panetta is trying to get a handle on all elements of a huge federal department, he told reporters traveling with him. He used the informal news conference to speak about his goals for the department.
"We have the strongest military force in the world and I want to ensure that it is the best trained, best-equipped and that it is agile and efficient in meeting the threats not only of today but down the road," he said.
The secretary said he wants to create a vision of what the Defense Department will look like in five to 10 years. "I think that's important to do particularly in light of the budget issues I'll be confronting this year as well," he said.
The U.S. military will prevail in the three conflicts it is involved with now, he said. U.S. military personnel will help Iraqi and Afghan security forces establish sufficient stability in Iraq and Afghanistan so al-Qaida and its allies cannot find safe havens. In Libya, "the objective is to do what we can to bring down the regime of [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi," he said.
Panetta will continue to work to counter nuclear proliferation, especially with Iran and North Korea, and at the same time maintain a strong U.S. nuclear deterrent, he said. And the secretary will stress defending the cyber grid, he said.
"Given the cyber threats we're facing, we really need to strengthen our cyber capabilities," he said. "I really do view this as an area in which we are going to confront increasing threats in the future and I think we're going to need to be prepared for that."
The secretary said he wants to do everything he can to support American troops and their families. Part of the trip to Afghanistan is to meet with the men and women on the front lines.
"One of the things I've already had to do is sign condolence letters to the families, and it makes me that much more aware of the responsibility we have to support these men and women and to do everything we can to support their families," he said.
The secretary spoke about some of the practical changes he is making at the Pentagon. He has reached out to the civilian and military leadership of the department. He has met with the senior enlisted advisers. And he initiated a staff meeting each morning.
"It's something that I've always used, so we will have the staff meeting each morning with the chairman, the vice chairman and the key undersecretaries to talk through the issues of the day and see if we can work together to confront whatever challenges we are facing that particular day," Panetta said.
He said he used these meetings when he was the White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration and as the director of the Office of Management and Budget. In addition, the secretary will meet with the service secretaries and service chiefs weekly.
The defense budget will, of course, be among the top issues discussed and the secretary said he is quite worried about funding.
"I recognize the importance of confronting the challenge that faces the country," he said. "I understand the tremendous responsibility on the part of the president and the leadership to try to come to the tough decisions that have to be made regarding the deficit."
He also understands that DOD will play a role in cutting the deficit, Panetta said. But, he added, "I do not believe that you have to choose between fiscal responsibility and a strong national defense. I think we can achieve savings and be able to have a strong defense force at the same time."
Panetta said he is concerned if budget negotiators "suddenly pick a number and throw it at the Defense Department without really looking at policy or what makes sense." This will lead to a hollow force, Panetta said.
He wants any budget decisions tied to good policy -- not only because it makes the best sense for the nation's defense, but also because it is enforceable. "If savings are tied to good policy then it can be enforced. If it's tied to bad policy then it could be a real problem," he said.
Panetta is continuing with the review within the Defense Department, he added.
"I've also directed our people to engage with [Office of Management and Budget] with regards to the approach that would make the most sense in terms of protecting our national defense and achieving savings at the same time," he said.